“Aspira is working to put the pieces together to solve for detection of early stage disease by investigating multiple detection technologies that we believe together could identify this malignancy as early as possible – and to do so starting with those who are at highest risk”.
Valerie Palmieri was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of Aspira Women’s Health™, Inc in January 2015, 3 months after joining the company as Chief Operating Officer. She has led its transition to the commercialization of its’ market-leading products and is now focused on its product expansion pipeline, expanding access to testing and touching more lives. Valerie has over 30 years of experience in the diagnostic laboratory industry, serving in numerous sales, operations, and executive leadership positions for laboratory service and consulting organizations.
Before joining Aspira, she was CEO and President of MOMENTUM Consulting. She also served as CEO and President of two healthcare start-ups, resulting in a successful exit for one and recognition as one of the “Top 10 Entrepreneurs of Springboard Enterprises” for the other. Valerie spent six years as National Vice President of Anatomic Pathology Operations at LabCorp, the successor company to DIANON Systems, where she served as Senior Vice President of Operations; she was a crucial leader in the sale of DIANON to LabCorp in 2003.
Leading by Example
When a company is led by a leader such as this, the employees truly unite around its mission-in this case, it’s Aspira’s mission to transform women’s health, starting with ovarian cancer. By bringing better testing on the risk of malignancy over current options, Aspira is improving clinicians’ ability to direct women at risk to the correct treatment. This steadfast and determined leader is a true movement maker exemplified by her passionate efforts to not only envision but to enable the achievement of optimal health for all women. A firm believer in leading by example, Valerie’s perseverance, hard work, and humble demeanor have allowed her to successfully set the bar for future leaders. Valerie has been a leader from her early years, inspired by her mother, who, dedicated to her family, was also a fervent worker for voters, women’s, and veterans’ rights and a tireless hospital volunteer. She has been married for 34 years and has two daughters in their late twenties who inspire her daily with their work ethic and rock star abilities.
Servant leadership is a staple of Valerie’s mission. She believes in empowering women and building a diverse organization that includes many women in top leadership positions— board of directors, executive team, and senior leadership team. Valerie firmly believes that diversity across an organization is essential to success. She and her Aspira colleagues have consciously ensured that the entire leadership team has a significant balance of women, men and embracement of all diverse populations. Valerie believes that women have unique qualities that are extremely valuable to an organization – for example, the strong ability to ask and understand the “why” in everyday situations, empathy, excellent listening skills, and the ability to balance multiple priorities. She is emphatic about empowering women and all employees at Aspira to learn, think outside the box, and ideate, develop, and implement innovative strategies to drive the company and each of their own personal development.
Fighting For a Cause
One of the moments that convinced Valerie to take the CEO position at Aspira was when she attended an ovarian cancer survivor conference as a consultant. Expecting to walk into a room of women who were weary and worn down from fighting the disease, instead she walked into a room of warriors who believed they had the power to make a difference for other women. Meeting these women and experiencing a tremendous impact their stories has fueled Valerie to improve the outcome of this devastating disease. And it truly is a devastating disease. Despite decades of research, ovarian cancer remains one of the most lethal of gynecological cancers. In the United States, it ranks as the fifth highest cause of cancer death, even though its incidence—1.3% of all new annual cancer cases—is relatively low. That’s because the symptoms of ovarian cancer may be overlooked or dismissed by women, and their doctors. The symptoms include “BEAT”: Bloating, Eating when feeling full, Abdominal Pain and Trouble with Bladder. When the disease is finally detected, it may have progressed to the late stage, where five-year survival is less than 50%. Valerie and her team at Aspira are determined to change the paradigm of women’s healthcare, starting with ovarian cancer, and they are accomplishing this in a variety of ways. Number one is Ovarian cancer which has not, unfortunately, been the recipient of significant awareness, attention, and investment. Although there has been research on developing a screening test for ovarian cancer, success has been elusive.
The two tests used most often, transvaginal ultrasound and CA 125 blood test, while helpful, can miss some malignancies especially at early stage. Moreover, some evidence suggests that there may be racial differences in CA 125 results. As Valerie notes, “Aspira believes in ensuring access to the best testing options for ALL women, no matter their race, ethnicity, or economic status is critical. In 2019, Aspira published two studies showing the inequity in detection between OVA1® and CA 125 in Black women. CA 125 performs poorly in this latter population, which may cause a higher number of Black women to have their cancer missed or not referred to oncologic specialists. Our data shows that OVA1® outperforms CA 125 in all women, but especially in Black women based on recent data. We have actively been campaigning to bring more awareness to this inequity and how using OVA1® can make a difference.”
According to Valerie, technology that helps healthcare providers assess early risk and detect disease quickly at the onset of the disease is paramount to improving outcomes and reducing late-stage disease. This requires innovative thinking to develop simple testing methods that utilize cutting edge bioinformatics technology to detect or assess risk at the earliest of stages. With early stage diagnosis, survival from ovarian cancer is 70-90%. For late-stage diagnosis, when the majority of cases are detected, the survival is only 20-30%.
Today, Ovarian Cancer is the only gender-specific cancer with a>50% mortality rate over 5 years.
Aspira’s OVA1® and OVERA® are FDA-cleared blood tests that can assess ovarian cancer risk in women with pelvic masses who are planned for surgery. In this scenario, it’s essential to know if that mass has a high risk of malignancy. This will allow the health care provider to determine the “best” next step in managing the disease. If the results indicate low risk, the surgery can be performed locally by an obstetrician/gynecologist; if results indicate high risk, the patient should be referred to a gynecologic oncologist of which there are only approximately 1000 in the US.
It is absolutely critical for survival that all high risk patients are triaged to a specialist. OVA1® and OVERA® have been shown to detect ovarian cancer risk in women of all ages (pre and post menopausal), disease stages (early vs late) and different types histologic subtypes of cancer. The recent most significant data also compares OVA1® vs the most common 40 year old test, CA 125 in the black population. Based on our data, we have demonstrated that CA 125 can miss 33-67% of cancers vs OVA1® detects 79%. Aspira has started a large trial to further expand its studies in this area.
Aspira also employs an evolving variety of methods to increase awareness of ovarian cancer and testing options for the disease. In so doing, it has made significant strides in healthcare provider and consumer awareness and education. The company ardently believes that educating women to become their greatest advocates can genuinely make a difference in enabling optimal healthcare and outcomes. “One of our powerful elements in this effort was the creation of a chief spokeswoman position and a patient advisory board. Diane Powis, PhD, an ovarian cancer survivor, is our spokeswoman,” says Valerie. “She was diagnosed with late-stage disease, which has compelled her to be a powerful voice within Aspira – keeping the patient central to all that it we do.” She adds, “Ensuring both our employees and our customers know that we embody our mission and vision with the patient at the center. Diane has created our patient advisory board, made up of other ovarian cancer warriors – their voices help us to amplify our message both to women and healthcare providers – inspiring and demanding that they think differently to make a difference.”
Aspira has several initiatives to develop more products to optimize women’s healthcare. Aspira is working on other testing, which will assess ovarian cancer risk in women as a non-invasive risk assessment to be used in conjunction with the providers clinical assessment to determine the risk of ovarian cancer for patients with an indeterminate adnexal mass. This will complement our current ovarian cancer risk assessment tests from OVA1plus™ to Aspira GenetiX™. Aspira will now have a portfolio of tests to assess ovarian cancer risk for women at different parts of the care management pathway,” emphasizes Valerie. “We need to detect this disease in its earliest stages to give women the very best chance at survival,” says Valerie. “Aspira is working to put the pieces together to solve for detection of early-stage disease by investigating multiple detection technologies that we believe together could identify this malignancy as early as possible – and to do so starting with those who are at highest risk, which are women who are genetically predisposed to this cancer. Aspira is working with renowned cancer institutions on this product,” she adds.
Aspira is also turning its considerable attention and expertise on another debilitating disease that affects women. 1 in 10 women of reproductive age will develop endometriosis at some point in their lives. This disease can cause life-altering pain, impaired fertility, and deleterious quality of life— both physical and mental. Unfortunately, endometriosis cannot be diagnosed without surgery. “Endometriosis is a disease that affects so many women yet does not have a non-invasive method for detection. Aspira is working on a product to detect endometriosis risk with a blood test – confirming for healthcare providers and their patients the presence of this disease without having to go through the trauma and cost of surgery,” notes Valerie.
“Our company has taken a strategic approach to ensure we have comprehensive coverage for all – not just those with commercial insurance from an employer but, for those with Medicare and Medicaid. This allows us to offer our testing to a much wider audience of women – ensuring ALL women have access to the best testing available. That’s a goal we all aspire to at Aspira. And it is one that we will achieve!” concludes Valerie.
Learn more about Aspira Women’s Health™ at aspirawh.com.